Masks while Running!

Dr Rajat Chauhan in interview to Shyam Menon

Given the number of races held under its banner, the 2019 edition of La Ultra – The High was spread over five days in Ladakh, India. At that elevation oxygen content in the atmosphere is lower than at sea level; it is lower still atop the high mountain passes the ultramarathon’s route touches. “We encourage runners, support crew and officials to use their bandanas; cover their face to protect themselves from the fumes of passing vehicles. In the case of someone who walked-ran all those five days, at least as many hours as in a half-day would have been spent protected by the bandana and breathing through it,” Dr Rajat Chauhan, Race & Medical Director of the event, said. Dr Chauhan specializes in sports & exercise medicine and musculo-skeletal medicine. “It should be fine,” he said when asked about the issue of wearing a mask and running.

“first wear the mask indoors for about the same duration as they plan to be out. Get used to it’’

However, there were caveats to the observation. A pre-existing medical condition can alter the tolerance someone has for prolonged breathing through protective barrier. Further, you have to get used to breathing so. “ In the last two months of lockdown, I would have gone out of my house just twice. On both those occasions I wore a mask and it wasn’t easy doing the things I had to do while breathing through the mask. My suggestion to those who are in areas where they are allowed to venture out for running is that they first wear the mask indoors for about the same duration as they plan to be out. Get used to it,’’ he said.

Getting used to the mask gradually also makes sense because in Dr Chauhan’s assessment most amateur runners haven’t learnt to use their lungs efficiently. Next, your intensity of exercise matters. Intense exercise puts commensurate demand on the respiratory system. “Do workouts at low intensity. Very long and or high intensity workouts are best avoided,’’ he said. Aside from the fact that high intensity training is a period when risk of cardiac problems is higher (before things improve as product of having exercised), immunity also lowers temporarily in this phase. The present characterized by COVID-19 is not times when immunity should be fiddled with. The N95 mask, which is more effective in keeping the virus at bay, is tough to breathe through. The normal surgical mask is easier to breathe through but not as effective a virus-barrier. “ At the end of the day you are in the realm of informed decision-making,’’ Dr Chauhan said of the challenge in framing best practices for a problem yet to witness in-depth study and research.

“Right now the ideal approach would be to consider everyone a potential carrier of disease and have everyone stick to safety protocols like using a mask or face cover. This is not a phase to be viewed only through the prism of sport. It is a question of humanity,” he said of world battered by COVID-19. His advice to runners was – focus on strength training. I have this saying: if you can’t do something sitting down or standing up, how can you hope to do the same while moving? All those boxes have to be ticked before you get down to running or running with a mask on,’’ Dr Chauhan said.

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